But new research shows we should also look at the 99% of our DNA that isn't genes. Once called "junk DNA" (which was a terrible name considering that we had not proved it didn't have a purpose; we just didn't know what the purpose was), this so-called dark matter DNA turns out to be hugely important.
A federal undertaking involving 440 scientists from 32 laboratories from around the world determined that it plays "a critical role in determining how cells, organs and other tissues behave," The New York Times reports. The analysis of this gargantuan project required the equivalent of more than three centuries of computer time.
The results, published last week in almost 40 articles in publications such as Nature, Genome Research and Genome Biology, show that much of this dark matter DNA contains gene switches that:
- control which genes are active in a cell and when
- determine whether a cell becomes a neuron or a liver cell
- affect a whole host of diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, celiac disease and more
“Most of the changes that affect disease don’t lie in the genes themselves; they lie in the switches,” Michael Snyder, a Stanford University researcher for the project, called Encode, for Encyclopedia of DNA Elements, told The Times.
The results of this study will greatly impact our health and business, since these gene switches appear to influence so many diseases.
The news could drive drug research and help us understand the environmental influence of disease risk and even explain why one twin gets a disease while the other doesn't.
“These papers are very significant,” said Dr. Mark A. Rubin, a prostate cancer genomics researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Rubin, who was not part of the Encode project, added, “They will definitely have an impact on our medical research on cancer.”
For instance, Dr. Rubin's team found that when it comes to prostate cancer, some already existing drugs don't attack existing genetic mutations. But drug companies could now use the new research to target the dark matter that controls those genes.
Related on SmartPlanet:
- The future of data storage: Coding information in DNA
- The future of cancer treatment: Whole genome sequencing?
- Coming soon: $1,000 to map your genes
- Genetically engineered mosquitoes to fight disease
- Stem cell breakthrough could bring cure for genetic diseases
- First stem cell treatment in humans improves sight in the blind
- First software simulation of an entire organism created
- First large-scale trial of Alzheimer's prevention drug announced
via: The New York Times